Growing up, my father and I talked a lot about death. I remember late night car rides as a little boy sitting in the passenger seat asking him numerous questions about what happens when we die.
“I think dying is the greatest event that will ever happen to us,” he’d always say. He never had a specific answer on what happens, but he believed something marvelous was waiting for all of us.
The topic of spirituality and dying would come up often on camping trips when we would watch the splendor of the stars next to crackling fires and tall pines.
The mountains were my father’s church and I remember our spiritual talks back then felt sacred as he’d speak softly with reverence and respect for God and creation.
While we were Catholic, we never spoke of Christ or the Holy Spirit on those trips. It was more about an all-knowing and ever present Great Spirit. A holiness found in every piece of nature, from the tips of a pine needle to a mountain top.
My father believed in a creator. Actually, he knew the creator, it seemed.
At three-days-old my father was adopted by an Isleta Pueblo man who raised him while practicing traditional Native medicine and ceremonies on hunting trips.
Throughout his whole childhood he was raised as a Native with traditional customs and philosophies. At age 18, just before bootcamp, my father was told he was adopted.
Even when the news of his adoption shook his identity, my father never abandoned his spirituality. In fact, I believe his complicated life story made it stronger.
As I got older, headed to college and started living on my own, I grew quite distant from my own spirituality.
There were times I silently declared myself an agnostic atheist. I developed a strong skepticism about everything in the world thanks to my early start in journalism. Most of my worldview passed through a scientific lens.
Everything has an explanation. Religion is a security blanket for the unknown. It’s just brain chemistry. Psychology. Science is real. God is just a comforting figure to eclipse our fear.
At times, I would still pray to something when life got rough or go to mass with my grandmother out of tradition. My faith evaporated.
And then on a November night, a few months before the pandemic, my world suddenly changed with a phone call and I yearned to go back to those nights with my dad by the campfires.
Over the phone, while speaking with that same soft voice, and with complete acceptance, my dad told me he had 22 months to live. A mass was growing in his brain. Cancer. This kind wasn’t curable.
For a few weeks, in the early days of his cancer, I would listen to him talk of God and the Creator again just like we did on those car rides and camping trips.
He’d pray over the phone, and I would say “amen” at the end in an awkward way, but I did it for him.
My wife was on the verge of giving birth to our baby, so we could not travel to see him at his home in Michigan.
Then the pandemic arrived and he became absolutely terrified of what it would do to us if we traveled to see him, so we respected his wishes not to travel.
We spoke everynight over video or phone and eventually I’d join in on the prayers.
“Amens,” became easier and then I found myself praying at night to a Creator while I laid in bed staring at the ceiling, wishing the stars would shine through.
I wasn’t sure if anybody was listening. I was hoping someone was. I prayed for my father to have a good journey.
As the cancer began to fog my father’s cognition, his spirit never crumbled. The end was coming fast and I knew every phone call, every word he could speak became valuable like diamonds.
Eventually, after the vaccines rolled out and we convinced my father it was safe for us to travel, we saw him and he was finally able to see his new granddaughter. That was a huge relief for everyone.
On a summer day, during a visit with my dad, I knew it was potentially the last time I would ever see him alive. My flight was leaving in a few hours and my brother and I spent time with him at his bedside before we left.
I kneed over him and prayed to a creator while holding his hand. His eyes were closed, but he was listening.
I placed my head on his chest like a little boy again. One last time to hear his heart.
As I braced myself for the final goodbye and for the eventual crash of tears and mess I would be walking out the bedroom door, something profound and abstract happened.
It’s hard to explain. I felt a deep, heavy presence in that room. I didn’t see anything, but I felt something….peaceful and strong.
There, next to my father’s bed, I didn’t feel any ounce of sadness. I didn’t feel any pain of impending loss. I didn’t feel the need to cry.
I felt a powerful message of acceptance and reassurance.
It wasn’t a voice, but there was a feeling—a powerful presence was clearly communicating with me in an abstract way that everything was going to be okay.
Right then and there, I didn’t believe my dad was on the verge of going to a wonderful place. I knew it.
I left my father’s bedroom with a profound sense of spiritual peace I’ve never felt before and I remember during the car ride to the airport feeling like I’ve been given a gift–a glance in a window of something wonderful.
The science part of my brain and the skeptical side of my thinking often tries to reconcile that feeling.
It’s just brain chemistry. It’s psychological. It’s just a mental airbag I created to ease the slow crash of my father’s passing.
Yet, when I try to listen to this reasoning within myself, I feel like I’m trying to take this profound experience and squeeze it through a key keyhole of a majestic, beautiful door that is already open and unlocked.
I feel a vastness to my spirituality and a relatedness to creation again, even nearly two years after that powerful moment. It changed my life.
I still pray today and when I hike alone through tall pines and under blue skies, I meditate on creation and my father’s spirit.
I know my father is with the Creator now and there have been times when I deeply felt my father’s presence with me.
In that bedroom, there was something strong with love and peace that gave a sense of wellbeing.
I’ll never forget the feeling.
I knew in my soul my father was about to experience the greatest moment of his life.